Montgomery schools' decision to slow pace of math courses divides parents

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:17 PM

One recent night, Mackenzie Stassel was cramming for a quiz in her advanced math course in Montgomery County. Her review of the complicated topics followed hours of other homework. Eventually she started to nod off at the table.

It was 11:15 p.m. Mackenzie is a sixth-grader.

There will be fewer such nights in the future for many Montgomery students.

Last month, Maryland's largest school system announced that it would significantly curtail its practice of pushing large numbers of elementary and middle school students to skip grade levels in math. Parents had questioned the payoff of acceleration; teachers had said students in even the most advanced classes were missing some basics.

Interviews with parents show that the issue provokes intense debate.

Donielle Stassel said Mackenzie is doing fine in seventh-grade math at Herbert Hoover Middle School. Still, the mother has mixed feelings.

"They just shotgun them through so much of this," Donielle Stassel said. "I understand that things move faster today, but at some point it just gets over the top."

This year, more than half of Montgomery fifth-graders are taking what the county deems sixth-grade math or above. Within a few years, the 144,000-student system plans to reconfigure its elementary and middle school math curriculum to conform with new national standards that educators say will ensure that concepts are taught in greater depth.

In Montgomery and many other places, the goal remains for students to complete first-year algebra by the end of eighth grade. That is a year ahead of the traditional timing of the course in U.S. schools.

Montgomery officials plan for Algebra 1 to be standard in eighth grade in hopes that even more students will take advanced math in high school. But the path students take will be straighter and involve less acceleration than the current sequence.

"We know that it's an aggressive curriculum in Montgomery County, and we certainly want the best education that we can get for our child. What parent doesn't?" Stassel said. "But it's just - at what cost?"

Math education experts say schools too often zoom through as many topics as possible, instead of lingering in depth on the basics. Advocates of the new standards adopted by the District and by Maryland and most other states - but not Virginia - say they will streamline math topics and make education more consistent.

For example, probability is taught most years from the second grade until algebra begins. Under the national standards, it will be taught in a concentrated dose in the sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

Montgomery was already reviewing its math curriculum even before the national standards came along. In one of the nation's high-flying school systems, where many highly educated parents push kids to excel in the most advanced classes available, the shift on math suggests there are limits on how fast students can move.

The school system report that outlined the new curriculum, the product of a year and a half of study, said efforts to increase access to high-level classes "effectively removed sorting and selecting practices based on assumptions about ability." That is a delicate way of saying that many students were moved forward no matter how they performed in math.

Deputy Superintendent Frieda Lacey, who was part of the team that developed the report, said the curriculum changes will also make high-quality math more widely available to minority and low-income students. The team found that in some cases, such students were being left behind.

Some math experts praised Montgomery's shift.

"I have never understood the U.S. mentality that somehow going faster is a reward for being reasonably good at math," said William Schmidt, a Michigan State University professor of education and statistics. "I don't know what the sense is to accelerate, accelerate, accelerate."

Schmidt said university colleagues often question whether many students who take Advanced Placement calculus in high school arrive in college prepared for college-level math. He said it could be valuable for some students to spend more time in high school preparing for calculus and then take the course in college.

Schmidt said that slowing down in math could improve the nation's global competitiveness. The United States has consistently ranked average or below average among industrialized nations on tests that give greater weight to in-depth analysis and reasoning than is often the case in American classrooms.

In Montgomery, the pathway of math courses is a thick tangle, filled with arrows that point to options for acceleration. The most advanced students can take AP calculus in 10th grade, then two years of what the county deems college-level math.

School officials say the new sequence is much smoother. The very top students will still skip ahead, but many more will stay at grade level and be taught in differentiated groups within classes.

Not all parents approve.

"I feel like the ability to have kids do this is good, as long as they can handle it," said Michael Lazar, whose sixth-grade son is taking Algebra 1 at North Bethesda Middle School.

Lazar said his son "was bored until they moved him up" in third grade. He cautioned against overcorrecting.

Some families say they're not surprised that the math push had grown so strong.

"In hypercompetitive Montgomery County, there's a notion that if you're not working above grade level, you're just not making the grade," Rena Milchberg said. She has a son in eighth grade at Cabin John Middle School who takes a bus to Winston Churchill High School every morning to take Algebra 2. Her daughter, in sixth grade, is on grade in math.

Milchberg said the prevalence of math tutors in the county suggests that many students are overstretched. One estimate found that in the 2009-10 school year, 72 Montgomery public school teachers were available for hire as tutors.

Still, Milchberg hesitated to condemn the trend toward acceleration.

"I don't know what's best" for students, she said. "I don't want to cut off their opportunities before they decide in college that they really love math."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company